MLB risks losing casual fans with shuffling streaming rights and TV blackouts

An advertisement by the YES Network in a PATH station in New York on Friday, March 11, 2016 urges viewers to dump Comcast as their cable television provider. The Yankees Entertainment and Sports (YES) network is embroiled in a dispute with cable provider Comcast after Comcast dumped them from their line up in a dispute over viewership. (�� Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)
With each season seemingly bringing more battles and confusion over how to stream Major League Baseball games — this advertisement is from 2016 — the Yankees are now likely to be unavailable on the YouTube TV platform because of an impasse with Sinclair Broadcast Group. (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)

One of the first stories I planned to do when I started this job exactly a year ago was on the state of the blackouts. I put out a call on Twitter for testimonials of frustration and received over 100 detailed emails.

They were lashing out against the absurdities of certain far-ranging and overlapping blackouts that leave pockets of the country unable to watch as many as six different teams on the app, sometimes despite having no actual option to watch those teams on local cable. Or else they were lamenting the more intrinsic, common issue of wanting to cut the cable cord while continuing to watch their hometown team. Alienating people who have that kind of fervent eagerness to engage with baseball — specifically by preventing them from doing so — seemed like the epitome of MLB’s oft short-sighted self-sabotage. It felt urgent.

Here’s what happened to that story: Someone at actual Major League Baseball suggested I just get YouTube TV in addition to my subscription. I did that and it solved my personal problems with accessing almost every game for all 30 baseball teams. And so I didn’t write that story in part because the solution seemed simple enough but more honestly because, pretty quickly, the idea of not being able to consume enough baseball content seemed very far away from my life.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

But now YouTube TV might not have Yankees games this year because it has been unable to reach an agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which last year purchased 21 regional sports networks (14 of which are the local outlet for MLB teams) and the right to control Yankees’ and Cubs’ distribution. YES Network’s website says it is “not optimistic” about its future on YouTube TV and suggests switching to a different streaming service. Probably that’s what I’ll do. Adding the $55 per month Hulu with Live TV to my growing collection of subscription streaming services. It’s a luxury and necessity of this particular job.

But if I didn’t work in baseball? Honestly? I’d keep the, keep YouTube TV and just not watch the Yankees. If I had a limited budget and lived in the blackout zone for my favorite team I wouldn’t bother with at all, losing touch with the rest of the league. If Sinclair jacked up the prices for pay-TV providers so high that it stopped carrying my local RSN, I would still try to go to games and seek out highlights but likely my interest would wane. If I was a Canadian who was used to watching the Blue Jays on and suddenly that was no longer available, I might let my account lapse. Maybe I would subscribe to Sportsnet NOW instead, but the prospect of paying roughly the same amount for one team’s games as I had been for all 30 is a pretty strong deterrent. Plus: not creating a new account is so much easier than creating a new account.

Maybe I just wouldn’t bother because it’s a golden age of scripted television and I can just get Netflix instead.

If I were a kid growing up today in a household where the people who pay the bills weren’t invested in chasing local broadcasts across platforms year-to-year, probably I wouldn’t become a baseball fan at all.

The point is: just because a solution exists for fans who are dedicated enough to seek one out doesn’t mean it’s enough to grow the game. It likely isn’t enough to sustain the same audience either. The YES website will redirect people who bother to check the YES website to Hulu or AT&T Now — but what about everyone else?

The entire television economy as it relates to sports rights holders is a convoluted thesis-level topic that has become only more opaque as the industry evolves, but some platitudes hold true even at their most oversimplified: Sports broadcasts rights are incredibly valuable to television companies because lots of people watch live sports. They’re valuable because they’re popular. But that popularity is dependent on accessibility.

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 21: Symbol photo: The logos of the streaming services Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, amazon music and youtube can be seen on a television on February 21, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
Amid a proliferation of streaming services and the dwindling dominance of cable, baseball's TV business model risks alienating or missing casual fans. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

When everyone had cable, you didn’t have to opt into baseball uniquely. As a result, a lot of people watched baseball. With entertainment becoming more niche, and more a la carte, baseball will have to prove it can be popular as an intentional choice.

Despite the stories we tell ourselves about them, sports are not inherently more universally appealing than, say, the theater — they just have a long history of being a hell of a lot more accessible. There’s only so far you can leverage that popularity into value before you start to undercut the accessibility that makes the whole thing possible.

And the tipping point will be the generation after the one that didn’t bother to switch their streaming services when Sinclair held out for a higher bid. The kids of baseball fans who cut the cord, who might have gotten if it let them watch their local team, but instead found themselves drifting further from the game as it becomes less and less accessible. Conversations about What’s Ailing Baseball Now? self-select to prioritize people who are passionate about the game and engaged with the minutia, but from within that bubble it’s tempting to forget that the people who could take it or leave it are crucial for the game’s popularity as well. And if the barrier to entry gets any higher, they’re liable to leave it.

That will end up being the legacy of blackouts: Not the frustrations of people who are determined to find workarounds or even those who bothered to email me a year ago. But the loss of casual fans who could have been converted to diehards, or their kids who never got the chance because it’s becoming increasingly complicated to turn on the TV and watch baseball.

Notes from the baseball internet

Frustrated Fans Ask the Mets: Can We Venmo You? By James Wagner at The New York Times

Consider this advice for all public figures: It’s possible to make your Venmo account private. But a related entreaty: Please don’t. The self-flagellating culture of Mets fandom is endlessly fascinating in each of its many iterations. This particular manifestation in Brodie Van Wagenen’s Venmo notifications is no exception.

'We keep pushing forward': The story behind Tim Anderson's promise, by Tim Brown at Yahoo Sports

My esteemed colleague talked to charismatic White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson about growing up with an incarcerated father — and then he talked to Anderson’s father about spending the first 16 years of his son’s life behind bars. There are so many screenshot-able quotes but I’m partial to Anderson talking about what his father was able to do for him:

“He always said ‘I love you.’ That was enough for me. When you’re going through that, not many people would say that. I love you. You know? And when I would talk, he would listen. Not many people would hear me out. But when I would sit with him or have a conversation with him, he would actually listen.”

Stephen Strasburg is speaking out and his contract terms say plenty, too, by Brittany Ghiroli at The Athletic

I usually hate post-hoc examinations of how a deal got done (they feel inherently self-serving and smug) but this piece has me reconsidering my whole stance because we really do learn a lot about the usually strong and silent Stephen Strasburg’s personality and priorities from the way he and agent Scott Boras negotiated a new deal with the Nationals this offseason. It’s detailed, revelatory, and a good example of someone using their leverage to make life better for fellow employees.

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